Deal shorts funds to little-known generator of statewide factory jobs
By Walter C. Jones
Morris News Service
The question of safety-vest color isnít one of style for visitors touring the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center. Itís about espionage.
Indeed, in this city so geared to tourism, Herty is one place that doesnít welcome members of the public to drop in for a stroll around. Thatís because the research conducted there is so far out on the cutting edge that the multi-national corporations funding it insist on elaborate protections against snooping competitors.
Color-coded safety vests ensure that people working on one project are spotted if they try to wonder into another one thatís off limits to them. Sometimes guards have to be hired just to escort visiting executives for the assurance of other companies with projects there.
This James Bond intrigue mixed with State Department-style diplomacy happens every day in a non-descript complex in an industrial park near the Port of Savannah. And itís seeking to step up its role in manufacturing-job creation across the state if it can get a little more state support.
That quest is actually an encore. Thatís because Herty, and its namesake scientist Charles Herty, is credited with developing the Southís pulp and paper industry.
Herty, the chemist, figured out how to overcome the properties of quick-growing southern pines that had prevented them from being a source for paper even though they were cheaper to produce than hardwoods. His success drew giant industries to Georgia and other states and led to thousands of jobs. Plus, this Milledgeville native launched the University of Georgia football program in 1890 while on the faculty there.
The Herty Center focused on aiding the paper industry for most of its 72 years as a state entity. When the paper industry uprooted for the Brazil and even faster growing trees, the center broadened its mission to all types of materials manufacturing, from biofuels and construction components to food additives and plastic coatings.
And like the CIA, confidentiality means it canít publicize its successes even though they turn up in household products.
Today, the staff of 50 serves a critical niche in the transition of innovations from the laboratory to the factory. It does it by custom building mini production lines and developing ways to profitably produce the new materials.
The in-house experts, from the electricians to the research scientists, have the experience and sophisticated equipment to analyze problems and find solutions. A company that may have developed a better mousetrap and built a few by hand can benefit from that expertise when trying to make thousands of mousetraps on an automated production line. Speed alone creates heat and inertia that can complicate production, especially when the products arenít really mousetraps but maybe synthetic fibers based on emerging nanotechnology discoveries.
Besides the gee-whiz aspect of having such a cool facility in Georgia, the stateís real benefit is in using proximity to Herty to lure more companies and their jobs just as Charles Hertyís breakthrough did in the last century. Half of its clients already have employees in Georgia.
William Brundage, the president of Herty, is not only scientist but also salesman. He negotiates the deals with companies needing Hertyís unique services.
Brundage is also selling legislators on the need to fund some upgrades at Herty. The pending budget for next year includes $615,000 for maintenance and operations, which supplements the $8 million income from research fees paid by its client companies.
However, Herty is seeking $1.3 million for broader upgrades in sewer, water and electrical systems that date to the 1960s, a request the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce will lobby for during Thursdayís Savannah Day at the Capitol.
To illustrate state leadersí understanding of Herty, Gov. Nathan Deal is recommending its transfer from the Department of Economic Development to the University System of Georgia. Itís been shifted between agencies before because it is so unique no one knows where it belongs. Is it a research facility or an economic-development agency? Brundage says itís both.
Brundage has ambitious plans for collaboration with Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern as well as creation of a Sustainable Innovation Park, kind of a mini version of Research Triangle adjacent to Techís Savannah property. Its presence at the park would require construction of a facility and financing.
ďAs we grow, materials-driven and materials-dependent manufacturers from around the globe will place Georgia at the top of their list as the place to innovate,Ē Brundage wrote in Hertyís 2010 annual report.
His toughest customers may be the ones holding the state purse.
Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at email@example.com, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.